What is Ritual?
When you think of a ritual, you may think of a religious ceremony. But it’s likely you harness the power of ritual in your everyday life without even realizing it.
We can simplify “ritual” to two definitions:
- a ceremony consisting of a set of prescribed actions
- a series of actions regularly followed by someone
So, a ritual is a “prescription” or a “habit.”
Ritual as Prescription
A prescription points to a behavior we should do. Typically, this has been pre-defined for us by our community, culture, society, religious organization, family, or authority figures. If we follow the rules of the ritual — if we chant this sutra, if we synchronize our physical movements just so, if we offer our service, if we manifest certain symbols, if we eat this food that’s been prepared this way — then good things will result.
Prescriptions come to us as good advice from a mentor, doctor’s orders, a friend’s recommendation, a religious ceremony, a code of conduct…
Our lives are full of them. How many times have you heard these prescriptions?
Eat seven servings of fruits and vegetables… Take this medicine twice daily… Meditate… Be present… Ask for forgiveness… Shower daily… Get more exercise… Give thanks… The list goes on and on.
Some prescriptions are instilled with a sense of the sacred. Some of them are tied to ceremony or a particular context. And many of them are habits so routine, you don’t even think about them.
Ritual as Habit
Although “rituals” and “habits” overlap in function, there are important differences.
We perform habits on autopilot.
In the modern world, with sensory stimulation coming at us from all directions, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s far more information to process in a given day than our hunter-gatherer ancestors ever had to reckon with! Today we’re forced to make an incredible number of decisions every day about how we spend our time and where we direct our attention.
Habits help us keep things running smoothly even when we’re challenged by the world around us.
But habits typically have only a tenuous connection to intention, thoughtfulness, and deeper meaning.
Ritual, on the other hand, is a behavior entered into willingly, mindfully, and meaningfully.
Habit is when you get up to your alarm, stumble to the bathroom, brush your teeth, and stand under the shower spray until your brain wakes up. Ritual is when you deliberately schedule a long bath into your day and spend time with no distractions just enjoying the soak.
Habit is when you shut your brain off, so it doesn’t offer any resistance when you pack your bag and drive to the gym. Ritual is when you’re able to bring clarity and conviction to your exercise routine, embracing your discomfort and striving deliberately for a specific goal.
Habit can be done to circumvent dread or discomfort. Ritual embraces the discomfort and moves past it into a feeling of playfulness and ease.
I’m not suggesting that you cast off habits and replace them with deeper, contemplative practices. Both have their benefits, and a well-rounded life should incorporate habit as well as ritual.
But if you’ve been feeling discontent about your stale habits and want to create more enchantment in your life, then ritual may be what you’ve been looking for.
Ritual as Play
“Children intuitively understand ritual better than most adults do. They recognize that its value lies in the fact that it is not real.
“Think of a group of kids during imaginary play. One pretends to be a policeman defending a store against the others, who have become a gang of robbers. They wave around their guns, hide behind cushions, and shoot one another, over and over. The children don’t see this gunplay as violence the way an adult might. For them, the gunplay is play — separate from the real world.
“They are fully aware that this is pretend, and they repeat it because it allows them to step outside their lives and hone different sides of themselves: they learn to manage fears and anxieties or play the role of rescuer and hero, all in a safe environment of their own making.”
— Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
UCLA Anthropologist Dr. Megan Heller studies play. Why and how do we play? What kind of effect does it have on us? And what distinguishes play from other ways of interacting with the world?
“Play and ritual are both part of a category anthropologist Peter Stromberg calls ‘Meta-action,’ because they’re both associated with ideas and symbols… and commentary on everyday actions,” says Heller.
In terms of the effect they have on us, “play” and “ritual” are two sides of the same coin. Both are associated with powerful ideas and symbols, both create a “charged” or alternate experience of the everyday world, and both are capable of speeding the process of learning and growth.
Heller explains, “Anthony Wallace, an anthropologist who wrote about ritual learning, he refers to a special kind of learning that happens in some kinds of rituals, where experience is rapidly reorganized under special conditions, which results in big changes in cognition and emotion and learning.”
So by engaging with ritual, you actively reshape how you think about and react to the world, changing the rules of what is possible — all while cultivating a sense of playfulness and enjoyment.
Ritual is also one of the reliable ways to enter the writer’s flow. You know those moments when the words just come to you and they’re perfect? The ordinary act of writing is transformed into something greater, almost magical? You lose all sense of time… and possibly even your sense of physical self. There’s just you and the words.
It often comes accompanied by deep contentment — a feeling of bliss or peace or ease.
Ritual is not required to achieve that flow state, but it can make it easier for you to get there. Eventually, ritual can lead you into the flow state on demand.
And the benefits of ritual aren’t limited to writing.
If you enter into a ritual practice with an intention to respect the process as you would respect something sacred, you can elevate the mundane and create conditions for inspiration to arise… and that can lead to big, positive changes in your life.
How to Create a Personal Ritual
Creating a ritual involves three steps.
First, set an intention. Decide what you want to accomplish. What emotions or sensations are you trying to evoke? What changes do you want to see that you hope the ritual will help bring about?
Then, explore symbols you might use in your ritual. Focus on those that intrigue and fascinate you.
Finally, take action to design your ritual. Invent, improvise, or structure a sequence of (playful) actions to bring your intentions and your symbols together.
To see how this works, consider these examples:
Robert’s intention is to get work done and put himself in a productive headspace. A symbol of work and determination that resonates with him is a cup of coffee… that great muse for writers, artists, and entrepreneurs around the world. So his pre-work ritual is a sequence of actions which ends with him holding a freshly-brewed cup of coffee and sitting at his work station.
What separates this from a habit and transforms it into a ritual is the attention and appreciation that Robert has for each step… the aroma of the beans as he grinds them, the sound of the water bubbling, the playful curls of steam as he pours his first cup.
Daphne’s intention is to form deeper personal relationships with those in her writing community. A symbol of community, family, and bonding is a home-cooked meal.
So she ritualizes her intention by formally inviting members of the community to her home for dinner. She carefully selects the ingredients… and as she prepares the meal, she keeps gratitude for the people she is cooking for at the fore of her mind.
Making This Work for You
If the idea of engaging in meaningful ritual in your life intrigues you, then stay tuned for upcoming articles which will help explain exactly how you can harness its benefits.
In particular, we’ll review pre-work rituals that help you transition to a productive headspace, healthy rituals to support your well-being, and creative rituals to inspire you and fill your creative well.